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By Mick Hume, The Times, 4 February 2005

NEVER MIND the posters of Michael Howard as a flying pig, or the advertisements that expose our children to the stunted genitals of that Crazy Frog from the mobile ring tone. The most shocking advert today is the one about the apocalyptic dangers of climate change from the government-funded Carbon Trust. Unlike the other two ads it has not provoked public controversy, but to my mind its message is as crude as a Tory pig or an amphibian flasher.

The Carbon Trust advert on television begins with an actor playing Robert Oppenheimer, "father of the A-bomb". The portentous voiceover tells us: "One man has been where we all are today. When he saw what he had done, he said, 'I am become the destroyer of worlds' (cue shot of atomic explosion). Now we all have to face up to what we've done. Our climate is changing..."

To make us feel guilty about "what we have done", we are shown cities, electricity pylons, personal computers and cars, followed by violent storms, huge waves and flooded towns. The message is that we are destroying the world through climate change, which has been brought about by modern industry and technology. So we must change the way we live and work in order to repent of our sins - or as they put it now, "reduce our emissions". Others predicting doom via man-made global warming are becoming similarly heated; one international body suggests we might be just ten years from catastrophe.

What we ignorant laymen are rarely told is that there remain serious uncertainties about the extent and causes of climate change - as even some scientists working with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will quietly concede. Yet woe betide any expert who tries to raise such questions in public.

When it comes to climate change, "sceptic" is a dirty word. Scientists who dissent from the strict orthodoxy on man-made global warming have been shouted down, labelled dupes of the US oil industry, even branded "climate change deniers" - a label with obvious historical connotations. Instead of taking up the sceptics' case, the accepted response of our illiberal age is to yell: "You can't say that!"

But is not scepticism crucial to scientific inquiry? Timothy Ball, a leading climatologist, says that those trying to test the theory of anthropogenic climate change - "a normal course of action in any real scientific endeavour" - are now being "chastised for not being in agreement with some sort of scientific consensus, as if a worldwide poll of climate experts had been taken, and as if such a consensus would represent scientific fact. Nothing could be farther from the truth; science advances by questioning, probing and re-examining existing beliefs."

We need to separate the science from the politics. Let the experts thrash out the evidence. But let them do so free from the pressures of a political climate in which human intervention is always seen as the problem rather than the solution, precaution is always privileged over risk, and the worst possible outcome is always assumed to be the best bet.

Perhaps those commanding us to "face up to what we have done" to the world might first face up to the dangers of reducing complex scientific issues to a simplistic political message, and presenting moralistic sermons as scientific laws. Whatever the true impact on the environment of burning fossil fuels, there seems a real risk of damaging the atmosphere of scientific inquiry by burning sceptics at the stake.